Yiddish Theater in New York

A cultural phenomenon of Jewish America in the early 20th century.

By

Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Many of the institutions created by Eastern European Jews became vital elements in the new transitional culture. Outstanding in this respect was the American Yiddish theater, which also had its origins in the Old World. Performances and skits by Jews were developed in the 1870s as part of a Jewish cultural revival and were centered in the active secular Jewish cafe life of Iasi, Romania, where Avram Goldfadn, the father of Yiddish theatre, held sway.

By the early 1880s many impoverished Yiddish theater companies were performing in wine cellars scattered throughout the larger cities of Eastern Europe.

yiddish theatre in new york

King Solomon by Josef Kroger
at Thalia Theatre, 1897

But actors suffered harassment from both czarist government officials and Orthodox Judaism. Numerous theater peo¬≠ple, including Goldfadn’s troupe, immigrated to the United States after 1883, when the Yiddish theatre was banned by Alexander III in the despotic aftermath of the assassination of Alexander II.

Growth & Development in the New World

In effect, Yiddish theater arrived in New York City in its infancy and was nurtured there at the turn of the century by its greatest audience — the largest, most heterogeneous aggregation of Jews in the world. In the early years in America, the Yiddish theater overflowed with “corrupt and foolish versions” of the European repertoire as well as “vivid junk and raw talent.” It took hold in the public mind only after many trials. But with the emergence of playwrights like Jacob Gordin and actors like Boris and Bessie Thomashevsky and Jacob Adler, larger and larger audiences were attracted.

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Gerald Sorin's most recent book, Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane, is now available. Gerald won the 2003 National Jewish Book Award in History for Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent.

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